What is a Latvian nationalist doing with a Russian progressive émigré? They are playing a German accused of backwardness.

We are dealing with an uncompromising artist. And although he himself is not a Catholic, he took an interest in Benedict XVI as a man who went against the tide of contemporary tendencies.

On the day of Pope Benedict’s death the Latvian director and playwright Alvis Hermanis made a post on Facebook, in which he announced he had finished working on his feature film entitled “The White Helicopter”. It was the events of 2013 – the last days of the pope who died a week ago – that became the artists’ subject of interest.

“The White Helicopter” is, at the same, an adaptation of a play under the same title staged in Autumn 2014 in the New Riga Theatre. Its author and director is also Hermanis. This artist doesn’t conceal his fascination for Benedict XVI and his thought.

Of course, the topic addressed in “The White Helicopter” refers to issues bothering people all across the globe. It is about delving into the reasons for Benedict’s abdication but not only.

Hermanis is considered a leading theatre innovator of the 21st Century. In 2012, the Swiss magazine “Du” was numbered among the ten most influential theatre personalities of the first decade of our century. Spectators in Poland, too, could many a time get acquainted with his artistic oeuvre.

The chance of watching “The White Helicopter” was limited though. The only way was to visit the New Riga Theatre. And, at that, there were only few performances. The Covid-19 pandemics broke out in 2020 and the lockdowns resulting wherefrom caused the stage life to die out in Latvia too.

It was actually the difficult pandemics situation that prompted Hemanis to make a film adaptation of “The White Helicopter”. This play is absent from the New Riga Theatre’s repertoire. Meanwhile it will be possible to distribute the film on a global scale. Enthusiastic reviews are already giving it publicity.

Mikhail Baryshnikov as Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI in the play "White Helicopter" directed by Alvis Hermanis, 2019. photo. Jānis Deinats, New Theater in Riga
So what conclusions can be drawn from those reviews? Hermanis’ production doesn’t lack bitter irony. It will be a parable of a world in which there shine infantile people and ignoramuses shine. They are the ones who make Europe defenceless against external dangers. So the Western civilization is in crisis. And it reaches also the Catholic Church. What is to be done with the Pope’s authority when the faithful perceive the Bishop of Rome as a pop-culture star and they seek solutions to ultimate questions in Wikipedia?

A Russian and a Latvian but still countrymen

“The White Helicopter” (both in the theater and the film version) starred the famous Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov as Benedict XVI.

At the turn of the 1970s, the Soviet Union treated him as the pride of its culture. It was so for some time. In 1974, the Leningrad ballet company, where Baryshnikov was a soloist, toured Canada. And then he left it to ask the American authorities for political asylum. Baryshnikov’s request was granted.

So he made a further career in the USA – also as an actor appearing in Hollywood films. Of these, “Turning Point” can be mentioned (for participation in it, the Russian was even nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Supporting Actor) as well as “White Nights” (for more on that production, see: in an article in TVP Weekly). Meanwhile in the USSR Baryshnikov was considered a traitor. Anyway it is meaningful that after the empire collapsed, when the political situation changed, he didn’t want to go back to Russia.

What Baryshnikov and Hermanis have in common is Riga. Both artists come from this city. Except that the Russian born in 1948 is son of an officer of the Soviet Army. Thus, if Latvia had not been conquered by the Soviet Union during World War II and had not become one of its constituent republics, Baryshnikov’s father, as a Soviet occupier, would not have settled in Riga. As a result, the dancer and the director, who is 17 years younger than him, would not be compatriots.

However, it turned out differently, and despite this, the cooperation between the Russian and the Latvian is developing fruitfully. Although it should be noted that both artists are in different positions in terms of worldview, which in the context of casting Baryshnikov as Benedict XVI adds spice to the whole thing.

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The Russian dancer has been a US citizen since 1986 and a Latvian citizen since 2017. His negative attitude towards the USSR is widely known. In turn, today he condemns the policies of Vladimir Putin. In 2022, after Russia invaded Ukraine, he was one of the founders of the True Russia foundation, whose aim is to help refugees from Ukraine.

At the same time, Baryshnikov harbors various superstitions and prejudices characteristic of the progressive elite of American culture. He appears as an enemy of “homophobia” and an ally of the “LGBT community”. In 2016, he officially supported Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump for the White House. He scolded the future US president, comparing him to a Soviet apparatchik.

License to broadcast. The case of the Dozhd TV channel

When it comes to assessing the Putin regime, Baryshnikov and Hermanis are no different. But the director starts from different premises than the dancer. Hermanis defines himself simply as a Latvian nationalist. According to him, Latvia is threatened by Russia not only militarily but also culturally. This includes matters relating to the history politics.

It is necessary here to pay attention to the case of the Russian TV channel Dozhd. This medium is in opposition to Putin. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, the station was blocked by the Russian authorities. As a result, Dozhd moved to Latvia, where it received a broadcasting license and resumed his activity. And it should be noted that after February 24, 2022, Riga became one of the main centers of anti-Putin emigration from Russia.

In August last year, however, the Latvian public was outraged by an interview that Dozhd conducted with the mayor of Riga, Mārtiņš Staķis. Channel journalist Ekaterina Kotrikadze took on the role of spokeswoman for Russians living in Latvia. She asked the Latvian politician why the decision to remove the monument to Soviet Army soldiers in his city was taken. And although Staķis himself said that the conversation was “OK”, Dozhd sparked indignation among Latvians.

In Latvia, the attitude towards the Soviet past is a field of conflict between the indigenous population and the Russian minority. A significant part of the Russians who live in this country do not want to integrate into Latvian society. This manifests itself in the reluctance to learn the Latvian language and the arrogant rejection of the position that Latvia was under occupation in Soviet times. Of course, a serious problem is also the fact that the Russian minority on the Dvina is used by the Russian state as a fifth column.
Alvis Hermanis at the Opera Bastille in Paris, December 8, 2015. Photo by. Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images
After Kotrikadze’s interview with Staķis, Hermanis began to demand that the Dozhd TV channel be deprived of the right to broadcast in Latvia. Ultimately, however, the station destroyed itself by an event in early December. In one of its live programs, the channel’s journalist Alexei Korostelov appealed to Russian viewers to send personal reports on what is happening to the Russians mobilized for the war with Ukraine. At the same time, he suggested that these relations could improve the conditions in which Russian soldiers find themselves. Although Korostelov lost his job after this statement, it was his words that contributed to the fact that the Latvian authorities took away the broadcasting license from the Dozhd TV channel.

Disapproval of “Willkommenskultur”

It is significant that before Russia invaded Ukraine, Hermanis had collaborated with Russian artists (Baryshnikov, although he doesn’t have Russian citizenship, is also an example of this) and worked on Russian literature. But in 2014, when the Russian “little green men” landed in the Crimea and Donbass, the director unequivocally took the side of the Ukrainian state, refusing to stage the opera “Jenůfa” by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. And for this gesture he was banned from entering Russia. But surely Hermanis was not an anti-Russian hawk at the time.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, something changed in him. And the case of the Dozhd television channel also had its share in this. Hermanis has, in a way, become radicalized. He treats Russian oppositionists with suspicion. He assumes that not all of them are Ukraine’s allies. He points out that being Russian is not enough to be against Putin, because you also have to get rid of imperial appetites. And it is worth mentioning that when Dozhd was active in Latvia, it showed a map on which Crimea appeared as part of the Russian Federation. For which The Latvian authorities imposed a fine of EUR 10,000 on the station.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Nonetheless, when it comes to the ideological differences between Hermanis and Baryshnikov, in the context of the play “The White Helicopter” and its adaptation, it is worth noting that the Latvian director – unlike the Russian dancer – looks at the Western civilization with the critical eye of a conservative. And by taking a politically incorrect stance, he does not stop at words.

In 2015, he caused a scandal. This happened during the migration crisis. Hermanis was then collaborating with the Thalia Theater in Hamburg. This institution was involved in helping newcomers from outside Europe. Meanwhile, the Latvian director disapproved of “Willkommenskultur” (the culture of hospitality that is the cornerstone of German migration policy), claiming that among the masses that flocked to the Old Continent there were terrorists. As a result, wishing to express his protest, he broke off his cooperation with the Hamburg theater.

Hermanis included his reflections on the ills of modern times in the diary he wrote in 2015-2016. In it, he attacked, inter alia, the legacy of the new left, which entered the arena of history in the 1960s. It is this legacy, characterized by the blurring of borders and norms, that the director blamed for weakening Europe, which was plagued by such events as the terrorist attacks carried out by jihadists in France in 2015.

It is therefore no surprise that in 2016 Hermanis staged “Submission” at the New Riga Theater, a play based on Michel Houellebecq’s novel. Let us remind that this is a dystopia about how Muslims gains control over France.

In the case of Hermanis we are dealing with an uncompromising artist. And although he himself is not a Catholic, he took an interest in Benedict XVI as a man who went against the tide of contemporary tendencies and for this reason was accused of backwardness. Therefore, it can be expected that the film “White Helicopter” will provoke disputes and controversies.

– Filip Memches
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: The play "White Helicopter" directed by Alvis Hermanis, staged in 2019 at the New Theater in Riga, 58a Miera Street. The performance was played mainly in English (partly in Italian, Polish, German and Latin) with simultaneous translation into Latvian and Russian. photo. Jānis Deinats, New Theater in Riga
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